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Sheriff, prosecutor in disagreement over new firearm policy

Published: Aug. 11, 2021 at 8:22 PM EDT
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LANSING, Mich. (WILX) - Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth says his relationship with County Prosecutor Carol Siemon is strained. To that point, he’s considering calling for her to step down.

That’s because of a couple big changes she’s making in how her office handles criminal cases.

Wrigglesworth said, “Clearly we’re in a bad spot. Right? She didn’t include us at all.”

She announced two policies that change what cases she’ll prosecute in the last month. The policy announced this week limits when someone is charged with felony firearm. That police is usually applied if someone has a gun when they commit a felony.

Sheriff Wrigglesworth and several other police leaders from around the county criticized the new policy.

“Zero involvement with any of us on this policy,” Wrigglesworth said. “Zero. Never asked a single question about it. We were just… ‘it’s coming out next week. Get ready.’”

This is not the first new policy within the last month the law enforcement community has had an issue with. Just a few weeks ago, the prosecutor’s office said it won’t be filing charges from non-violent traffic stops. Prosecutor Siemon told News 10 July 27 it’s her effort to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

“What we don’t want is implicit or explicit harassment of individuals because of the color of their skin or economic system,” Siemon said.

Lansing City Council member Carol Wood asked Siemon to resign in a statement during Wednesday’s news conference.

Something Wrigglesworth and at least one other police chief agree with.

Johnnie Torres, Stockbridge’s Police Chief, said, “It’s what she was elected to do. It’s unfortunate but if she doesn’t want to prosecute the law, then I think she should resign.”

Prosecutor Siemon hinted this is just one of a series of police changes she plans to announce. She responded to the backlash from local law enforcement in a statement sent to News 10.

“Yesterday’s felony firearm policy was issued to address the very real and significant racial disparity of how this law has been utilized,” Siemon wrote. “While the original goal was to deter gun violence by creating a mandatory prison sentence, the reality is that crime and gun violence continued to rise until it peaked in 1991.”

Siemon’s full statement is included below.

Yesterday’s Felony Firearm policy was issued to address the very real and significant racial disparity of how this law has been utilized since its inception in 1976. While the original legislative goal was to deter gun violence by creating a mandatory two-year prison sentence, the reality is that crime and gun violence continued to rise until it peaked in 1991. Not only did the felony firearm law not serve its stated function of reducing gun violence, it was another way, like the ill-conceived “war on drugs” in the 1980s and 1990s, that dramatically increased the incarceration of Black men.

Sadly, the emotional and inaccurate statements by law enforcement today played on the legitimate fears of us all about the real and horrible rise in gun violence. Overall, in Lansing, Michigan, and across the nation, increases in homicides and violent crime have occurred at similar rates in both jurisdictions that rejected reforms and those jurisdictions that pursued reforms.

I was elected both in 2016 and 2020 on a platform of using research, evidence, and data to enact policies and practices to promote the dual goals of protecting the interests of victims and our community while also reducing mass incarceration and racial injustice. This policy is another step to fulfill that promise.

Prosecutors serve as ministers of justice and are ethically bound to pursue those interests. Indeed, as ABA and Michigan ethical rules make clear, it is the responsibility of the prosecutor not to serve as a zealous advocate but to “do justice” on behalf of the people. One of a prosecutor’s primary responsibilities is to promote public safety in the communities that she or he serves, and there is substantial evidence that punitive approaches to criminal justice undermine public safety and community trust.

The new policy concerning Felony Firearm charging is related to dramatic racial inequity in how this and certain other laws have been charged and is not in any way linked to the goal that we share of keeping the public safe. The purported link between this policy and any future rise in gun violence is disingenuous and erroneous. It is as reasonable to argue that the rise in gun violence, homicides, and domestic violence are due to law enforcement policies and practices that have maintained the status quo over the last two years as any implication that they are linked to prosecutorial reforms. Based on decades of data, we know that the rise in violent crimes is cyclical and despite numerous efforts to provide clear links on causes for rises and decline in crime rates, there simply is not a single causal connection.

In developing this policy, we considered the fact that if a firearm is used in a crime, it is covered in the sentencing guidelines for the underlying felony offense, such as an armed robbery, homicide, or assault with intent to great bodily harm. We also considered other felony cases, such as a breaking and entering of a building, strangulation, or other very serious crimes where a firearm is not used. Ultimately, the question is whether we have the appropriate legal tools available to hold an offender accountable for his or her behavior without utilizing this “add-on” charge that has resulted in 82% of those incarcerated on this statute statewide being Black. This is a race equity issue, not a gun violence issue. We remain committed to using multiple laws, tools, and strategies to reduce gun violence, promote public safety, and hold perpetrators accountable- without using this one particular law that no-one can question has disproportionately impact Black community members.

Nationally, common sense reforms have decreased incarceration rates without sacrificing public safety. Despite frequent statements opposing reform, there is NO evidence that the rise in gun violence and homicide is tied to criminal justice reform. It is not only here in Ingham County, Michigan where there have been misleading claims that criminal justice reforms are tied to a violent crime wave. We are all disturbed and distressed by the rise in violence over the last two years. I am working within my office and the community to provide multiple responses, first and foremost, to prevent violence, and second, to support victims and hold perpetrators accountable for violence. The criminal legal system is complicated and nuanced and the people of Ingham County deserve complicated and nuanced responses.

- Carol Siemon, Ingham County Prosecutor

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